The Jewish Guianas

November 13, 2012 8:34 am 1 comment

A view of Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. Photo: Raybx973/Wikimedia Commons.

Situated on the northeast coast of South America, between Venezuela and Brazil, are three remote former colonies of Britain, Holland and France. Even though they are full of natural wonders and the promise of unforgettable adventures, these countries are still undeveloped and consequently rarely visited by tourists. Today, the countries are known respectively as Guyana, Surinam and Cayenne, and each has written a unique chapter in the history of the Jewish people.

Guyana, the westernmost of the three, was formerly known as British Guiana and is the only English-speaking country among them. Its capital, Georgetown, is a vibrant city that reflects much of the country’s history and diversity. Georgetown was originally settled by the Dutch and known as Stabroek. It has wide, tree-lined avenues, lily-covered canals and fine examples of 18th and 19th century colonial buildings. Its cathedral is reputed to be the tallest wooden building in the world.

Among Guyana’s natural wonders are the Kaieteur Falls, located on the Potaro River in the center of the country. Kaieteur Falls is largest single-drop waterfall in the world…five times the drop of Niagara! A more benign experience awaits visitors to Marshall Falls, where one can bathe in a “natural Jacuzzi” created by the tumbling waters, stroll through the surrounding rainforest and strike up a friendship with locals in the nearby bush camp. These are but two examples of literally countless adventures that await the inquisitive visitor.

The population of Guyana is made up principally of East Indians and the descendants of freed African slaves. It has been reported that there was a small Jewish community in Georgetown during World War II, but no Jews live in Guyana today. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable that, until just a few years ago, the country had a Jewish president. President Janet Rosenberg Jagan met and married her husband, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, in her native Chicago, where he studied dentistry. They both returned to Guyana where he opened a dental practice and she became his nurse. In due course, both of them entered politics, and he was eventually elected president. After his death, Mrs. Jagan ran for the presidency and was elected in her own right, thereby becoming one of only three Jewish women ever to be the chief executive of a country. She was a dynamic and outspoken leader of her nation from 1997 until her death in March 2008.

A butcher market in Paramaribo. Photo: Bart van Poll.

Surinam, the former Dutch Guiana, is said to have the oldest Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere, established about 1500 by Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. The community grew and generally prospered for the next three centuries, until the mid-19th century, when the country went into economic decline. Surinam’s interior, especially the Brownsberg Nature Park and the Galibi Nature Reserve, offer hundreds of different species of tropical plants and animals.

While in Surinam, my most memorable experience was a cruise into the interior in a small boat with an outboard motor. As we cruised up the Saramacca River, we saw alligators and were warned to keep our hands out of the water so as not to feed the piranha. When we finally arrived at a native village deep in the jungle, the village’s beautiful people captivated me, among them several nubile young ladies clad only in a sarong. I took a number of photos of them and compensated them with a few coins. I then photographed an elderly gentleman, and offered him the same amount of money, but he refused and asked for double. I asked him “Why?” and he pointed to the grey hair on his head and, in a combination of pigeon and sign language, indicated that it took him much longer to grow that head of white hair than it took those young women to fill out so beautifully.

Today, the remaining Jews of Surinam, numbering perhaps 200, live in the capital, Paramaribo, and valiantly support the last remaining synagogue, “Neve Shalom.” Also of interest to Jewish visitors are the ruins of the “Bracha v’Shalom” synagogue built in 1685 in the Jodensavanna, located in the wilderness south of Paramaribo.

Paramaribo itself is a bustling city with a culturally diverse population of Indian, Indonesian, African, Cereole and Dutch origin. As a result there is a rich architectural mix, including the Presidential Palace that is reminiscent of the country’s Dutch heritage and the St Peter & Paul Cathedral ,said to be the largest wooden building in the Americas. Fine examples of Hindu temples and Mosques also abound.

Cayenne, the former French Guiana, has played a pivotal role in Jewish history because it is there, on “Devil’s Island,” where Captain Alfred Dreyfus was imprisoned after being falsely convicted of being a German spy. It was after he witnessed the infamous Dreyfus trial that Theodor Herzl wrote “Der Judenstaat” which, because it concluded that Jews needed a national homeland, became the philosophical underpinning of modern Zionism.

Devil’s Island is actually one of a group of three small islands off the coast of Cayenne and can be clearly seen across a narrow, shark-infested channel from Royale Island, where the administrative headquarters of the prison community were located. Today, the group is officially known as the “Isles de Salud” (islands of good health). Even though Royale Island has been sanitized and has become a popular tourist resort, one can still see the cells that housed the more fortunate prisoners and cannot help but sympathize with Dreyfus, who spent four years in solitary confinement on the neighboring island.

Cayenne City, the capital, is a pleasant and unremarkable French colonial city with the mandatory Avenue du General de Gaulle as its main thoroughfare and a number of squares filled with public buildings, monuments and gardens. Fort Ceperou and Fort Diamant are both 17th-century military outposts. Other attractions include a museum and the picturesque Remire-Montjoly Beach.

Georgetown, Paramaribo and Cayenne are all relatively easy to reach by air from Miami, as well as from London, Amsterdam and Paris. While accommodations are not up to North American or European luxury standards, each city has “name brand” hotels as well as more modest lodgings. For travelers wishing to explore the interiors of the Guianas, it is important to have all necessary inoculations and is advisable to travel with groups organized by tour operators that specialize in wilderness and adventure travel.

1 Comment

  • another confused sub-ethnic human

    Thanks for the inclusion of the history of The Guianas. Interesting stuff that helps to segue to the state of affairs today. It is a shame how these three countries were abandoned and remained exploited 3rd world countries.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Blogs 10 New Hollywood Movies That Aim to Show Support for Israel (SATIRE)

    10 New Hollywood Movies That Aim to Show Support for Israel (SATIRE)

    Ten major film studios are currently in production on projects that promote a decidedly pro-Israeli narrative. In famously liberal Hollywood, such a development has left mouths agape and set tongues a wagging. Since the Jewish State began defending itself from the thousands of rockets that Hamas has hurled at it – as well as ongoing terror attacks and murders, the overwhelming number of Tinseltown’s producers, directors, actors, and studio moguls have remained indifferent to the plight of millions of Israeli [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Sports So Close: Israeli Judoka Loses Crown in World Cup Final, Finishes With Silver (VIDEO)

    So Close: Israeli Judoka Loses Crown in World Cup Final, Finishes With Silver (VIDEO)

    Israeli Judoka Yarden Gerbi (63kg), 25, of Netanya, on Thursday lost the final round at the Judo World Cup, and her world title to Clarisse Agbegnenou of France, at a match held in Russia. “I have mixed feelings,” Gerbi told Israeli Army radio. But, “I shouldn’t assume that I’d win the world Judo championship twice in a row,” she admitted. Gerbi won gold in Rio De Janeiro last year. “When I made my decision, I knew it was going to [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity Surviving the Holocaust by Hiding Their Faith (REVIEW)

    Surviving the Holocaust by Hiding Their Faith (REVIEW)

    “Jews Out!” was just the name of a child’s game that three little girls played in World War II Europe. But all is not as it seems because the three girls were Jewish, but hiding their true identities. In award-winning author R. D. Rosen’s riveting non-fiction work, Such Good Girls, “Jews Out!” wasn’t a game; it was a struggle for survival. The girls, Sophie, Flora, and Carla, grew up at a time and a place that did not allow them [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    JNS.org – “He was part hippie, part yippie, part beatnik, and part New Age,” wrote Elli Wohlgelernter in a Jerusalem Post eulogy in 1994, following the Oct. 20 passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Twenty years later, more robust accounts of Carlebach’s life have come to the surface. Earlier this year, Natan Ophir published the book Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission & Legacy. This past summer, Rabbi Shlomo Katz’s The Soul of Jerusalem hit the shelves. But even the authors will admit [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Music Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    As Hamas loses its grip on power in the Gaza Strip as a result of war, poverty and disillusionment, the Islamist terrorist group has developed an ingenious way to raise the morale of the 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs it was elected to serve. While currently focused on delivering a rocket into every Israeli home, Hamas has not left its own people behind. To gently wipe away the tears of children strategically placed inside kindergartens as human shields, the Hamas Interior Ministry [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    In a strong statement that challenges the historic divide between Christianity and Judaism, Pope Francis recently proclaimed, “Inside every Christian is a Jew.” But if you look at Renaissance artworks that depict Jesus, you will not find any evidence of a Jew inside the Christianized Jesus — even though the Gospels in the New Testament tell us that Jesus was Jewish to the core. Getting that point across to the public is a daunting task, as I learned in interviews I [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities Recycling His Roots

    Recycling His Roots

    JNS.org – Having started his career playing on his family’s pots and pans, Jewish musician Billy Jonas has maintained this homemade performance ethic while spreading his messages of simple living and environmentalism to a shared home throughout the world. After beginning in the kitchen, Jonas soon moved to the music room, where he picked up the piano, guitar, and trombone. These days, the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist plays on with pretty much anything he can find, including cans, bottles buckets, and other recycled-object [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    JNS.org – Sara Davidson’s The December Project is a new book that should be read by all senior citizens, and by those who hope to live a long life, for it raises a question that most of us have not been taught how to answer: What should we do in that final stage of our lives? Many of us continue working past the traditional retirement age of 65, not because we need the money and not because we find the [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.